AtlantisPosted: April 4, 2012
Spring 1978 until Spring 1980, Bethesda, Maryland
Stephen Lewis – electric guitar, vocals
John Wilson – electric guitar
Ron Benbassat – drums
Mark Lerner – bass, vocals
We briefly added:
Matthew Laur – keyboards
Two girls I can’t recall – vocals
After a year or so, we added:
Dana Hinton – electric guitar
KC Kolvereid – vocals
Folks, this is where I will no doubt lose a few readers. The last post saw me playing catchy odd pop on national TV. Now we’ve got my first band as a bassist, formed when I was 14 and was just learning to play.
Some folks out there may have been cool when they were 14. They may have been talented instrumentalists and singers. They may have had good taste. Not me.
I had: Atlantis.
1. Beginning Bass
As I started 8th grade in 1977, I persuaded my parents to let me take up the bass (in addition to the trumpet, which I’d been playing since 3rd grade). We rented a Kay bass and a tiny Marlboro practice amp from Ellsworth Studios in Bethesda, and I started taking lessons there with a guy named Kit Kamien. Kit was the closest thing to a beatnik I’ve ever known. He was super cool. At the beginning of every lesson he’d say “Zip on back and plug in your axe.” I didn’t know anyone who could talk like that. He had me buy a book of Carol Kaye bass transcriptions and I learned the bass parts to a lot of Motown and pop songs that I didn’t really know. He’d indulge me by showing me the bass part to any song I brought in, which was pretty much always a Led Zeppelin song. He’d always try out new hipster slang on me. “Hey, Mark, check this out: Lip-lock my love muscle.”
2. Forming the Band
After a few months of lessons, it was time to form a band (right?). My friend Ron Benbassat lived nearby and played drums; I’d known him since elementary school, and we walked to junior high together every day. For a guitarist, we had to look further afield. John Wilson lived in another neighborhood and had gone to a different elementary school. But he was nice, and he had a guitar. I remember the first few times we played together, it was just the two of us at his house. He didn’t really have the all-Led-Zeppelin-all-the-time thing that Ron and I had, but we bonded over the first Cream record, playing “Spoonful” and Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine,” which had just come out. He also knew “House of the Rising Sun,” from a Frijid Pink record. I’d never heard of them, so I was impressed; the album cover haunts me to this day.
Over the summer between 8th and 9th grade, my parents returned the rentals and bought me a Gibson EB3 bass and an Acoustic 136 amp. The band, still nameless, kept rehearsing. A friend of ours at school, Stephen Lewis, was supposedly getting really good at guitar. Unfortunately, he broke his arm, which delayed his audition. We had him show up to play just a couple days after he got his cast off and were amazed to hear him play the solo from “Stairway to Heaven” note for note; he’d been practicing while he had the cast on.
Once we had two guitarists, we felt like a real band. We named ourselves Atlantis, with typical 14 year-old grandiosity. Stephen and I split vocal duties. He was willing to scream like a little girl for the Robert Plant parts in the Led Zeppelin songs, and I’d tend to sing the tamer stuff. In truth, we both hated singing and knew we weren’t any good at it. Whenever possible, we’d do an instrumental version of a song.
The photo below shows John Wilson exhorting me on the back of my 8th grade yearbook to practice my “electric fish” (Get it? Bass? Fish? Oh I love to laugh) so that we can play Cream’s “Badge” in the next year’s Rock & Folk Night, the school’s big annual talent show. Auditions were in the band room at school. For some reason there was a puddle of water on the floor by the mic stand, and when Stephen stepped up to sing, he got a huge shock and screamed right into the mic. All the judges put their hands over their ears. We did not make the cut.
You can see a good sampling of our basic repertoire from 1979 in this cassette tape, recorded by our friend Matthew Laur: “Locomotive Breath” (Jethro Tull); “Purple Haze,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and “The Star Spangled Banner” (via Jimi Hendrix); “Badge” and “Sunshine of Your Love” (Cream); “Cocaine” (Eric Clapton); “The Ocean,” “The Rover,” and “Good Times, Bad Times” (Led Zeppelin).
“All Along the Watchtower”
For iPad, iPhone, or other non-Flash enabled devices, go here to listen.
Note that Stephen mangles the lyrics to the first verse of “All Along the Watchtower” and doesn’t even bother with the rest of the lyrics; we still manage to go on twenty seconds longer than Jimi Hendrix’s version. “Cocaine” clocks in at over six minutes and, yes, that is me “singing.”
3. The Desperate Years
One day in ninth grade, John and I both had our instruments stolen from school. Homeowner’s insurance came through for both of us; John got a black Telecaster and I bought a 1974 Fender Precision Bass from a kid at school. That’s still my main bass today.
As ninth grade wound down and we moved on to high school, we tried a few variations in our lineup: We played Led Zeppelin’s new single “All My Love” with Matthew Laur playing the synthesizer solo. Unfortunately, none of us was up to singing the song. We tried Heart’s “Magic Man” with two girls singing; it was a blatant ploy to get girls to come to our rehearsal and hang out with us. Unfortunately, they couldn’t sing very well either. We started asking random kids at school if they wanted to sing in our band. (I asked an older kid who was in one of my classes, Craig Lapine; he demurred but recruited me and Stephen for *his* new band, which would become the Nitz, about which more later.)
Finally, a guy named KC Kolvereid was signed on as a singer. He was, I think, two years older than us (I can’t find him in any yearbooks). He couldn’t sing that well, but was full of self-confidence. We also decided to add a third guitarist. Dana Hinton was handsome, popular, and had a lot of effects pedals. He’d been in the band that beat us out for the ill-fated Rock and Folk Night. As a guitarist, he was very fast and loud. (Once when he rehearsed at my house, he left his amp and all his pedals; Stephen and I plugged a guitar in, leaned it on the amp, turned on all the pedals, turned the amp all the way up, and ran from the room screaming, with the feedback looping and ringing out. We had a bit of jealousy to work out.)
Stephen and Ron were my best friends at the time, and I really liked John, but the two new guys were sort of strangers to me. The band got a lot less fun. In Bethesda, “southern rock” was a big thing. I found it sort of creepy and rednecky. But our new members were way into it, and really, what else are you going to do with three guitarists? The southern rock band of the moment was Molly Hatchet, and so we added a few songs by them to our repertoire. We played them at our only show ever, a school “coffeehouse” that took place outside on a lovely day in the spring of 1980. At that same show, Stephen and I performed with the Nitz for the first time. Afterwards, we realized that we both had a lot more fun playing with the Nitz, and so we let Atlantis, well, sink.
This track sounds hideous, but for one brief moment when I was transferring the file I kind of imagined that it sounded like the Meat Puppets. Like instead of out of tune and crappy, we were loose and fascinatingly drugged. But the feeling passed.
John Wilson lives in Colorado. Ron Benbassat is a doctor in Beverly Hills. Dana Hinton lives in Maryland. I can’t really dig up any information on KC Kolvereid; also, I’m not really sure his name was KC. I don’t know if any of these guys play music anymore.
I pretty much put the Led Zeppelin and Cream records away for good after this band. I can’t exactly say punk changed my life (not then, anyway), but Pure Pop for Now People did. In rather doctrinaire fashion, I suddenly had no use for big heavy British blues rock.
Kit Kamien had recently been diagnosed wth multiple sclerosis when I began taking lessons from him. (He wrote a great paean to his wheelchair, “Bitch on Wheels.”) I kept taking lessons from him for about 2 years until he couldn’t really see well enough to read music and he passed me along to another teacher. I didn’t like that guy as much and stopped lessons altogether. Kit passed away in 2007.
If you made it this far…
In digging through the tapes of Atlantis, I found a couple takes of a song that wasn’t exactly an Atlantis song; it was just me and Stephen. But I’m deeming it worthy of inclusion because it’s the first song I ever wrote. Co-wrote, actually. It’s an instrumental called “Vietnam” (because the sound of Stephen’s guitar feeding back through the vibrato on his amp sounded like chopper blades). I wrote the plodding beginning part and Stephen wrote the faster second part. Mostly it was an excuse to record a bunch of feedback. I can’t say there’s much to recommend the “song,” but hearing our 14-year-old selves goofing around and Stephen’s joyously freaked-out “Oh my god!” at about 5:06 makes me very happy.